Chaya Cooperberg
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The Faith and Films of Simcha Jacobovici

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Tenacious, courageous and brazenly self-assured, Canada's top documentary filmmaker thinks of himself as an op-ed writer with a camera

Simcha Jacobovici’s black and white limo pulls up to a red carpet outside the Princess of Wales Theatre. Floodlights roam the downtown Toronto skyline as he and his entourage-wife, sister, mother and in-laws-arrive at the reception for the screening of Hollywoodism: Jews, Movies and the American Dream, a film he codirected and produced. In front of the theatre he poses with his family for the cameras, an impressive figure at 6’3″ elegant in black jacket and pants, a round-collared white shirt, wire-rimmed glasses and large Middle Eastern-style black kippah on top of his chin-length blond hair. The night passes by in a blur for him-an endless parade of well-wishers and handshakes.

It’s a cold November evening, and the screening is a fundraiser for the Toronto synagogue and community centre Jacobovici has founded, the Jewish Film Festival and the Bloor Jewish Community Centre. The film, based on a book by Neal Gabler, tells the story of Hollywood moguls-heads of the largest movie studios. They were Jewish men who had immigrated to America and rejected their traditional pasts in favour of an invented reality they viewed as the American dream.

“One of the hopes I have for this film is that it would make Jews and other people who bought into this assimilationist fantasy buy out of it a little,” Jacobovici tells the assembled audience of more than 2,000 when the movie has finished. He speaks of one of its messages: to be proud of one’s roots, of one’s identity-part of the moguls’ downfall came from abandoning the world of their fathers.

Hollywoodism also has an anti-idolatry theme. “We created gods out of movie stars,” he says. “This film brings down the icons and puts things into perspective.” To Jacobovici, an Orthodox Jew and established documentary filmmaker, movies can be the bearers of false idols-the scourge of his religious beliefs-or they can send a constructive message and “make people proud of who they are.”

Twelve years ago, Jacobovici and his coproducer, Elliott Halpern, founded Associated Producers, a documentary film company. Together they have produced 15 feature-length documentaries and reaped more than 60 awards, including the 1996 and 1997 Emmys for outstanding investigative journalism for The Plague Monkeys, about the Ebola virus outbreak in Zaire, and The Selling of Innocents, about the child sex trade in India. Jacobovici’s best-known film to date, 1991’s Deadly Currents, about the Arab-Israeli intifada, won a Genie for best feature-length documentary.

Jacobovici has been called a guerrilla filmmaker-a moniker he earned by making intense, controversial films, often under the most trying of circumstances. He has led camera and crew into the geographical outposts of the Sudan, where he nearly lost a leg to an insect bite, for Falasha: Exile of the Black Jews. He has ventured into the political hot zone of the West Bank, where his life was threatened by extremists and rubber bullets, for Deadly Currents. He is quick to say that he is not a “fearless cowboy”-he feels the weight of keeping his crew safe. And since his marriage to Nicole Kornberg in December 1991 and the birth of their two daughters, he is conscious of being more careful. But his colleagues consider him courageous, someone who will go to great lengths to get the story that his insatiable curiosity drives him toward. His powerful, point-of-view documentaries are charged with passion and possess an earnestness that speaks of his faith in their message. He believes that documentaries must venture beyond the realm of entertainment. “Film should educate, celebrate and challenge our notions of identity,” he has said.

Canada’s history of documentary filmmaking dates back to the 1930s, when John Grierson founded the National Film Board, a government agency designed to support Canadian film. “For Grierson, viewers are passive receivers of information, ideas and feelings that have been arranged and presented by the filmmaker,” writes Clarke Mackey in an essay on Deadly Currents in the summer 1992 issue of Queen’s Quarterly. “This is still the most common type of documentary being made today.” According to Mackey, Simcha Jacobovici belongs to “an alternative school of filmmaking practice”-one that is meant to “induce the pleasure of learning.” Jacobovici is proud that his films don’t offer solutions to problems but instead create a framework for discussion and for asking questions. This open-ended approach, however, must not be confused with the notion of objectivity. “I don’t believe that any film is objective,” says Jacobovici. “Every film has a point of view….What I consider good filmmaking is bringing honesty and balance to your point of view.”

John Katz, a former professor of Jewish film at York University, is familiar with Jacobovici’s films and also knows him personally through the synagogue Jacobovici founded. “Simcha becomes more of an advocate in his films for an idea, an argument, than a lot of filmmakers,” he says. “His films don’t have that pasty indecisiveness that a lot of them do.” Jacobovici does achieve a degree of journalistic objectivity because of his Talmudic approach to filmmaking. “He looks at all sides and he’s always questioning,” Katz explains. “When you study Talmud [the written text of the Jewish oral law], you study with a partner and you may change sides, even to a side you don’t believe in, because you’re interested in the question, in the argument.”

In the 1993 book Brink of Reality: New Canadian Documentary Film and Video, author Peter Steven writes that “no producer stays completely independent,” and says producers will always be accountable to their “world view, sympathies and connections.”

“I’m always thinking as a Jewish person,” says Jacobovici. While only a few of his films have Jewish themes, all possess a degree of moral and societal introspection, evident in documentaries such as The Selling of Innocents and Northern Justice, the 1995 film about treatment of the Inuit within the Canadian judicial system. He has said that “all the films I make are Jewish because I bring that sensibility to it.”

For Jacobovici, religion and film are both a means to an end-a way to ensure cultural survival. In an age where market and industry have become civilization’s temples, he has found a balance between the secular and spiritual worlds. David Ostriker, an Orthodox Jewish documentary filmmaker who has known Jacobovici for 13 years, says, “You have to reconcile who you are and what you do, and combine the two. Simcha has done that to a large degree.”

Jacobovici’s passion for making documentaries with a social conscience stems from his background and upbringing. In   an interview with the popular Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz in December 1996, Jacobovici said: “The three outstanding foundations of my life are my ‘Israeliness,’ my Judaism and the fact that I am the son of survivors. They are the driving forces behind the subjects of my work-oppressed and suffering groups-and the guiding hand that leads me in the manner of my work.”

He was born in 1953 in Petah Tikvah, a small city in central Israel, five years after the creation of the state and eight years after the Holocaust, where he was raised with his younger sister, Sara, in a spiritual, though not Orthodox, home. There was a strong faith in God in the home, and at night the family would gather to say a prayer they had created. His parents, Joseph and Ida, had come to Israel from Romania after surviving the war. Jacobovici says that growing up as the first generation since the birth of Israel “felt special.” He and his sister were raised to believe that they were the first Jews in 2,000 years who were not going to be victims. “We weren’t going to take orders,” recalls Jacobovici. “We were encouraged to talk back, we were encouraged to break rules, we were told that there were no rules for us.”

When Jacobovici was 9, the family moved to Montreal because Ida needed a cooler climate for health reasons and Joseph, an engineer, had just received a contract for work there. But the experience of spending his formative years in a victorious country that had just secured independence affected him deeply. Jacobovici maintains that his “Israeliness” has very much remained a part of who he is (he now calls himself an Israeli-born Canadian). Jacobovici grew up arguing politics with his family over breakfast and constantly questioning and criticizing. “Nobody was an authority figure for me,” recalls Jacobovici of his youth.

In 1974, he graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy from McGill University. Soon after celebrating his 21st birthday, he volunteered for a year in the Israeli army out of a sense of nationalistic duty, an experience that reinforced his “Israeliness.” He also spent a year working on a kibbutz. Afterward, he moved back to Canada to pursue studies in international relations at the University of Toronto, earning an MA. He continued on toward a PhD, but soon made the transition from academic to activist, leaving his final thesis unfinished. He had all the necessary qualities of leadership-beneath his Bee Gees-inspired haircut and thick-framed glasses, he was intense and charismatic. He was elected president of the first Canadian chapter of Network, a North American Jewish youth activist organization, where one of his accomplishments was successfully negotiating the removal of national origin from Canadian passports. Another issue he struggled to publicize was the suppressed story of the Falashas, Ethiopian Jews. The international Jewish community was aware of the Falashas’ situation and many disapproved of the low-profile approach the Israeli government was taking to it. In Ethiopia, the Falashas had been living as practising Jews for thousands of years in a land where their religion was barely tolerated. Many had tried to escape famine and oppression by fleeing to Sudan, but ended up in overcrowded refugee camps where they were shunned and abused. In 1978, Jacobovici began writing articles describing the Falashas’ persecution, and eventually published several pieces in The New York Times. Without any experience or knowledge of the field, Jacobovici decided that film was the “next logical step” in spreading his message: “I thought documentaries in film are what op-ed pieces are in writing.” Unable to find an established filmmaker willing to take on the story, he organized the production himself. Between October and December 1982, he travelled in Ethiopia and the Sudan, to the remote corners of the mountainous region where the Falashas lived. To fund the documentary, he promised additional films about the area for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the CBC Man Alive series. In turn, they provided money up front. With Jacobovici was an experienced crew that included former National Film Board documentary filmmaker Peter Raymont, whom Jacobovici had commissioned as director. During the shoot, however, Jacobovici became involved with the actual filming, although officially his role was that of interviewer and political expert. “My analysis wasn’t just verbal, it was visual,” he says. He would point out shots he wanted, and ultimately directed three-quarters of the 80-minute documentary. Jacobovici’s vision strained his relationship with Raymont and the two men haven’t spoken since. “He felt like he could have made the film himself,” Raymont says.

From this directorial debut, it was evident that filmmaking came naturally to Jacobovici. Falasha: Exile of the Black Jews is a conventional documentary-presenting a clear, if somewhat plain, synopsis of the situation. Talking-head scenes prevail and there is little artistry in the narrative. But the film is nevertheless affecting. Stories the Ethiopian Jews tell of being tortured by local peasant associations are riveting, and their proclamations of religious devotion, touching.

An official guide of the Ethiopian government leads the camera through the dusty roads of Gondar province, to the places where Falashas are rumoured to be living. In a tiny village atop a hill, a young Ethiopian Jew waits until the guide is out of sight before he displays a forbidden Torah, tattered and frayed. The camera pans a row of Falashas behind a bramble fence, evoking the barbed wire and starving faces of the Nazi concentration camps.

One reviewer described it as a film “that believes in its ability to save a people.” Of Jacobovici, the Chicago Tribune wrote that “his is an admittedly partisan account, he is almost obsessed with the Falashas and condemns anyone not willing to go all out and rescue them.” Eight months after Falasha was shown in the Israeli parliament, Operation Moses, the airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel, was launched.

It was the success of this film that led to the creation of Associated Producers. It began in 1986, in Jacobovici’s townhouse on Broadview Avenue in Toronto’s Riverdale area, where he lived alone. The living room doubled as the company’s main control centre. Eight years later, when the company moved to its present location on lower Spadina Avenue, Jacobovici was still at the centre of all the action-his office is directly across from the main door, in between the boardroom and the kitchen. As he sits at his desk, engaged in one of his epic-length phone calls, he sees all who pass by and all that comes to pass in front of his wide office door.

Across the hall lined with award certificates, plaques and promotional film posters is the office of Elliott Halpern, Jacobovici’s business partner and coproducer. They had first met at a U of T political philosophy course back in 1980, but didn’t see each other again until years later. In 1984, Jacobovici had an idea for another film, but needed someone to write the script. In a meeting he describes as fortuitous, Jacobovici ran into his old schoolmate outside the building where Halpern was practising law. Although Halpern had no film experience, he had been editor of The Varsity, the U of T student newspaper, and Jacobovici thought he had “the right sensibility” for the story. In a “surreal conversation on the street,” Halpern agreed to write a draft. While that film would never reach production, it marked the start of a prolific creative partnership, and two years later, Halpern left law to help start Associated Producers.

Both men share many of the same ideals of filmmaking; neither wants to make “cookie-cutter” films that are driven by demand, but they do not see themselves as “esoteric art filmmakers” either. They strive to make films that have international appeal and exotic locations and that ultimately tell a good story in cinematic language.

Although Jacobovici has never studied film, claims no mentors in the medium and does not identify with any particular style, the artistry of a film is important to him, although not at the expense of content. SinceFalasha, there has been a noticeable artistic evolution in his documentaries. His 1996 film Expulsion and Memory: Descendants of the Hidden Jews, about Jews who were converted to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition, achieves both ends through a mesmerizing quilt of flamenco music, sensual dance and seamless scenes.

In a Christian cemetery in New Mexico, many of the headstones are engraved with Hebrew words and six-pointed flowers symbolizing the Star of David. In Hervas, Spain, against a backdrop of worn, pale buildings, a young boy tells us, “In this town, if you go far back enough, we’re all Jewish.” Between scenes, a flamenco guitarist sits in a darkened room strumming a song-the tempo quickens and then slows as a Spanish dancer swirls, waving her arms to the hypnotic rhythm.

“A beautiful-looking film,” wrote John Haslett Cuff in The Globe and Mail. Jacobovici consciously uses music, art and dance in many of his films to advance the stories being told. While documentaries are visual recitals of facts, Jacobovici says they must be entertainment as well. “Are you telling the stories in a way that people feel like they’re being lectured? Or are you telling them in a way that people feel like they’ve gone on a journey?” he asks.

Jacobovici considers his increased artistry more of “a smooth evolution than a revolutionary break,” but according to Rudy Buttignol, head of documentaries at TVOntario, there was a turning point in Jacobovici’s career. “In Deadly Currents he transcended being a mere journalist and became a filmmaker, an auteur,” he says. “It was his nonfiction novel.”

“In each film that I make from Falasha to this day, I try to set myself challenges,” Jacobovici says. Sometimes that means using narration uniquely so that the film isn’t just an “illustrated lecture,” or even avoiding narration altogether and letting the people and places speak for themselves, as he did with Deadly Currents.

Deadly Currents was the film that propelled Jacobovici into the upper echelons of Canadian documentary filmmaking. Shot and edited over a year and a half, with Elliott Halpern and Ric Bienstock as coproducers and Steve Weslak as editor, Deadly Currents received wide acclaim and commercial success. Critics described it as “balanced and powerful,” and many considered it the best film they had seen on the Middle East conflict. For an independent film steeped in foreign politics, it had an extraordinarily lengthy run, playing in theatres in Toronto, Montreal, New York and Tel Aviv. It played for 11 weeks in Toronto, which is practically unheard of for a documentary. The $1.1-million film took in about $100,000 at Canadian box offices alone and an estimated $30,000 in the U.S.

Mournful music plays as scrolling text, outlining the fractured history of Jews and Palestinians and the claim each have on the land, travels up the screen against a background of a black-and-white photo of an army truck. At a swearing-in ceremony for Israeli soldiers, the film turns bright with colour. The story of the struggle is told through vivid characters; the Israeli soldier who is horribly burnt by a Molotov cocktail, the young Palestinian who is martyred and mourned by family after being killed and the street performer who is a descendant of both cultures and angrily rejects them.

The documentary won six prestigious awards, including a 1992 Genie. Despite such acclaim, many attribute the commercial success of Deadly Currents, and Jacobovici’s subsequent films, to his personality rather than his talents as a filmmaker.

Jacobovici is a master of media manipulation and has been described as a near-genius when it comes to getting publicity. Michael Posner devoted an essay to Deadly Currents in his 1993 book Canadian Dreams: The Making and Marketing of Independent Films. Of Jacobovici’s press savvy, he wrote: “The publicity campaign mounted for Deadly Currents was more nearly reminiscent of a military exercise than anything else, and Jacobovici was its high-profile general.”

David Ostriker, a Toronto film producer and Jacobovici’s close friend says: “At the end of the day, Simcha is a greater promoter than filmmaker.”

Elliott Halpern agrees that Jacobovici’s promotional savvy drives the company. Halpern is more involved in the international business side, although both partners contribute creatively to projects. “I think we have a way of keeping each other grounded,” says Halpern.

Still, both are headstrong and opinionated-they sometimes have shouting matches in the editing suite, and employees at the film company have to mediate between their creative visions. “They’re like the odd couple: Simcha’s the idealist and Elliott’s the voice of reason,” says Mark Leuchter, a researcher and writer at Associated Producers since 1995. “After a conversation between the two, when they’re yelling back and forth at each other, Simcha’s taken away a little bit of reason and Elliott’s taken away a little bit of idealism.”

Not all of Jacobovici’s creative relationships have been as satisfying. He is notorious for being difficult to work with. Ric Bienstock, a Toronto independent filmmaker, has known Jacobovici since 1986 and worked with him on several projects. “Jacobovici is capable of immense charm,” she is quoted as saying in Michael Posner’s book on Canadian independent film, “but he is also a perfectionist. He knows what he wants and he’ll stop at virtually nothing to get it. Sometimes, he is abrasive, not only with colleagues, but with people whose cooperation he really needs to achieve what he wants.”

David Ostriker agrees that Jacobovici’s methods, however successful, could use some refining. “He pushes people without any grace at all. He gets away with it because he’s a charismatic leader.” Another close acquaintance of Jacobovici says, “Simcha didn’t make enemies because he’s successful. He made enemies because he’s abrasive and brazen. He’s self-centred when it comes to producing.”

Some of his peers and colleagues have described him as ruthless. John Katz, who has known Jacobovici since the time of Falasha, argues: “I would never call him ruthless. He’s determined and knowledgeable. He’s exactly what a film producer has to be.”

Jacobovici’s younger sister, Sara, a music therapist, says there is another side to him that not many people see. “People will call him arrogant because he is very sure of himself. But after he speaks or makes a presentation, he runs to me or someone he’s close to and asks, ‘How was I?’ He always seeks people’s opinions.”

Those who have worked for Jacobovici say that he drives himself as much as he drives those around him. Off the record, some complain that they haven’t received the recognition they deserved. “Simcha’s weakness is that he isn’t generous enough in sharing credit and hurts people, very often unknowingly,” says Ostriker. “He and Elliott have grabbed the limelight whenever they could, and sometimes it’s better to share it.”

Jacobovici says that while he and Halpern often get the credit for a film in the press, he believes that “filmmaking is a team thing.” He is also aware of what he calls an “I-hate-Simcha-club,” referring to some of the strained professional ties he’s had over the years, beginning with Peter Raymont over Falasha. “I’m always butting heads and I think it’s a positive thing,” he says. “I need that feedback, that argument, that tension and different perspectives. But you’re walking a tightrope-if you butt heads to the point where your egos are involved, then it’s destructive to the filmmaking process. I like to think that my ego’s strong enough that I can take criticism without letting my ego interfere.”

“Sim is a guy with a tremendous ego,” says David Ostriker, “but he has the blessing of being a devout Jew, and it keeps his ego directed in a very positive, productive way. It is Simcha’s will, or ego, that makes him do what others consider to be impossible or fruitless.”

Jacobovici says that some people are amazed that he could still be “a good filmmaker in spite of the fact” that he is an Orthodox Jew who keeps the Sabbath and will not shoot on Friday nights or Saturdays. As he evolved from student political activist to the consummate filmmaker he is now, Jacobovici’s religious beliefs followed an evolution of their own. While he always had a strong Jewish identity, about eight years ago he began to practice his faith through daily prayer, a kosher diet and Sabbath observance. His new lifestyle led Jacobovici to start the only Orthodox synagogue on Toronto’s Danforth Avenue, in the predominantly Greek area in which he lives. It began in his home on Broadview Avenue in 1992 and now occupies a three-room store above a beauty salon.

The fact that Jacobovici lives and practises Orthodox Judaism on the Danforth is significant. “It’s easy to be a Jew at Lawrence and Bathurst,” Ostriker explains, “but to be an Orthodox Jew in Greek Town is a serious commitment.” It is a conscious declaration of independence, a geographical resistance to conformity. Rather than inhabit the Jewish Orthodox enclaves along Bathurst Street, where kosher bakeries, synagogues and Hebrew schools abound, Jacobovici and his family choose to create their own centre.

In his life, film and religion are intricately entwined. Indeed, Jacobovici leads a life of balance-between the spiritual and the secular, between film and faith. At its best, a documentary is a historical document, a visual liturgy of a phase in time. As an explorer of the past and journeyer of the present, Jacobovici uses film to pursue the people who have preserved and tell our history. “I’m very conscious of the whole concept of tikun olam, of making the world a better place,” he says. He believes that a film can be made to create problems-or to help find solutions. “I would like to think that I’m making films that are part of the solution,” he says.

Soon, Jacobovici will be screening a documentary that Ostriker predicts could be “the most important film Simcha ever does.” It is about the legendary 10 lost tribes of Israel who have been missing since they were exiled and cut off from the two tribes of Judah in 722 B.C. Jacobovici says he has found them in places such as Afghanistan, China, Indonesia and India. For him, this will be a film of passion-a film that, likeHollywoodism and Expulsion and Memory, will explain our past and unite us in the present.

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